One of my most memorable Christmases was the year I got Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. When I played the first Paper Mario, I had actually rented it from a Blockbuster or something. I had so much fun in the few days that it was mine that I absolutely hated to part with it. My parents observed my love for the game and the next time there was a birthday or national holiday they were gracious enough to get it for me. I played the heck out of that game, and then I heard there was a sequel.
There was no panache, no flair to me getting the game. No fireworks, no clever fakeout where I thought it was a t-shirt or underwear. I just remember opening the package and being so excited to finally have a sequel to what had quickly become one of my favorite games of all time. My granddad had been the source of the present, so I thanked him and gave him a big hug. Like I said, nothing crazy. It was simple. But that memory is still vivid in my mind. Because even though the unwrapping of the package was mundane, my experience with Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door was anything but.
To this day, I think I can safely say that TTYD is still my favorite game of all time. Not because it deserves that title on a technical standpoint or even on a story one, but just because of the experiences that I had with that game. It appealed so exactly to my sense of humor, to my idea of what made an RPG fun, to the kind of Mario story I wanted to experience. I had loved the first Paper Mario so much, and now I had this incredible new game that was even greater than the first. I couldn’t even imagine where the series might go from there.
I’d say you can guess the rest of the story.
For what it’s worth, I really loved Super Paper Mario as well. While the gameplay had deviated quite a bit from my beloved TTYD, the game still had the same quirky sense of humor, a story pregnant with behind-the-scenes lore, and wonderful characters to interact with. I was still happy with that game, and while many argued that “Paper Mario was ruined,” I fought nobly to defend the honor of this wonderful series.
Then Sticker Star came out.
I never understood how that game kept getting 8’s and 9’s from critics. The story was non-existant, the once hilarious and deep characters replaced with an army of faceless Toads, the new sticker mechanics weren’t nearly as fun as either the original RPG mechanics or the platforming mechanics from Super Paper Mario. I huffed and I puffed and I sold my game to GameStop, returning to my old favorites rather than playing the new atrocity. I can see how, for new players, there’s really nothing *wrong* with Sticker Star per se. But for those of us who grew up with the original games, Sticker Star could never live up to the magic they provided.
Now, a new Paper Mario game is on the horizon. Color Splash. For many fans, there was one tiny strand of hope that maybe Sticker Star was a wake up call. Maybe the series would return to its roots. Surely Nintendo and Intelligent Systems had to give us the Paper Mario experience we really wanted. Right? RIGHT?!
Well today at E3, we got a glimpse of what we’re in for. And while it is certainly pretty…it isn’t pretty.
I will say right off the bat that this game looks way better than Sticker Star. While the deep, unique characters are still gone, the quirkiness is back. There’s a sense of humor evident in the dialogue that definitely recalls the spirit of the older games. And from what little we’ve seen, there appears to be hope that the story will be deeper than “Bowser did something bad. Stomp him.” Yet while these are certainly steps in the right direction, other things are not. Combat is still driven by expendable/collectible elements, this time cards rather than stickers. You still need specific, special Thing cards in order to overcome bosses, which means you’re screwed if you didn’t scour the world for exactly the right Thing to use. For each step in the right direction, there is an unappealing element of Sticker Star clinging stubbornly to Color Splash.
This game has the spirit, at least a little bit. But it’s no Thousand-Year Door. So what do we make of it?
On YouTube, one of my favorite channels had the opportunity to do an interview with the developer of Color Splash. You can watch that interview here. In this interview, they ask the question on the minds of many Paper Mario fans – what happened to the RPG we knew and loved? Will we ever see those elements again?
Here’s the answer: Mario and Luigi is the definitive RPG of the Mario universe. You can’t have the Mario and Luigi series and keep Paper Mario the way it used to be. So rather than keep RPG elements in Paper Mario, they decided to experiment with the gameplay.
That answer is both sensible and incredibly frustrating. I get it, having two competing Mario RPGs probably doesn’t make a lot of business sense. It’s logical, it’s practical. Sure. But why does removing the RPG elements of the game mean that we also have to remove the other things that made Paper Mario great?
Look at Super Paper Mario. Say what you will about the platforming gameplay. A lot of people hated it. Whatever. But the STORY is still strong. The CHARACTERS are still original, with multifaceted personalities and cool backstories. The WORLD is still full of lore that you can discover if you go out of your way to explore. The WRITING of the game is full of fun, quirky dialogue. THOSE are the things that make Paper Mario, and you know what? NONE of those things are dependent on having RPG gameplay.
What if we choose to define Paper Mario by its spirit rather than its gameplay? Maybe the series will never be an RPG again. And as someone whose favorite game is STILL Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, typing that sentence hurts me. I want the series to go back to its roots. But here’s the thing – maybe Paper Mario doesn’t have to be an RPG to still be Paper Mario.
That being said, Color Splash is a step in the right direction compared to Sticker Star. But some things may still need work. It’s hard to say anything definitively right now, because we don’t have the game at our homes, in our consoles. We don’t know the story yet. But based on the trailers we have seen at E3, here’s what I think needs to happen for Color Splash to soar as a true blue Paper Mario game.
THE STORY NEEDS TO BE FRESH
The mainline Mario series is the place for the developers to play it safe and always have Bowser kidnap Peach and always have Mario trounce Bowser at the end. If they want to play it safe, they have plenty of Mario series to play it safe in. If they’re going to use Paper Mario for experimentation, great! Experiment with the story too. Not just the gameplay.
THE GAME NEEDS MORE ORIGINAL CHARACTERS
In the interview linked above, the developer says that in this game, even though most of the characters are Toads you can still tell them apart by the uniqueness of their dialogue and their manner of speaking. I truly hope that this is the case. However, I think in future titles they need to utilize more Mario species, or make up some new ones. Make characters with unique designs. Toads with funny hairdos or weird outfits. Koopas whose shells aren’t green or red. These little details made the characters in the older Paper Mario game stand out, even when those characters weren’t significant to the story. Just because the game isn’t an RPG doesn’t mean they can’t invest a little in the NPCs.
THE WORLD NEEDS DEEPER LORE
This is something that Color Splash may very well deliver on and we just don’t know it yet. What is Prisma Island? What kind of people live there? Why is color so important to their culture? Has this loss of color happened before? Did heroes rise up to do something about it? What happened to them? These are the kind of details that exist in the background of the first three Paper Mario games, and they breathe life into the game world. That kind of life is what takes the different levels and makes them matter. All it takes is loving the game enough to put some heart into its design.
THE GAMEPLAY NEEDS TO BE GOOD
I want Paper Mario to be an RPG. A lot of us fans do. But if it isn’t going to be, the least that they can do for us is to make whatever kind of game it ends up becoming into a good game. After Sticker Star, there were a lot of complaints. The sticker system didn’t work for people – they didn’t like needing specific Thing stickers to beat the bosses, they didn’t like how battles felt needless because there was basically no reward other than coins. The limited sticker inventory was frustrating and made players feel really limited in their options. It’s clear from the Color Splash footage we have seen that some of this has been fixed – and some of it hasn’t. They don’t have to make Paper Mario an RPG – but whatever they make it, if a certain element is frustrating to the players or doesn’t work right, then by golly they need to fix it!
If I’m being honest, I’m not excited for Color Splash. The whole Thing card aspect of the game is still a huge turn-off for me. But the development team has taken some steps in the right direction. This game does – at first blush, at least – look more like a true Paper Mario title than its predecessor. If the developers can take some criticism and apply it to their games, if they continue to take steps in the right direction, who knows what could happen? Fans of the original games may never quite get that Thousand-Year Door sequel they so desperately want. I know it’s gonna take a lot for me to love a Paper Mario game that much again. But perhaps, with the right changes, the new direction of the Paper Mario franchise can still embrace the fun spirit of the old games and become something special in its own right.